John Schmier is my longtime colleague. We go as far back as Autodesk's WHIP! Plug-in for the Netscape Navigator browser to view Drawing Web Files (DWF). Today, John works as a researcher on generative design in the Office of the CTO. I mention John because he loaned me his copy of Junkyard Planet by Adam Minter. [Amazon] I found it fitting that I reused his copy rather than acquire my own. Between us, we just saved enough trees to print 296 pages.
One of my favorite blogs is called Indexed. Indexed author, Jessica Hagy, displays thought-provoking ideas on index cards.
As I have done for book reviews before (Only Humans Need Apply, FLOW, Codermetrics, Shutting Up, The Infinite Resource, High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service, SPIN Sucks), I thought I'd once again try my hand at being a Jessica Hagy by providing an index card for each chapter of Junkyard Planet. Hopefully, it's interesting in a unique way.
Here are some concepts from Junkyard Planet.
Sometimes totally different things are the same size.
"The global recycling industry turns over as much as $500 billion annually — roughly equal to the GDP of Norway — and employs more people than any other industry on the planet except agriculture." [page 2]
"...culture, education, and income play a role in how much actual waste a particular person or place recycles. ...no culture encourages a high recycling rate quite like the culture of poverty. In essence: if you can afford very little, you'll tend to reuse a lot... But no matter how poor or eco-conscious a particular population is, the degree to which they recycle primarily comes down to whether or not someone can derive some economic benefit from reusing waste." [pages 15-16]
"Steel mills had dumps where trash and residues of steelmaking were thrown away. ...the most plentiful were thin flakes ("mill scale") that form on the surface of hot steel as it cools." ...Leonard Fritz collected and sold mill scale at an agreed-upon rate of $1.25 per ton. One afternoon, a metallurgist's husband asked him [Fritz] to procure 300 tons. Figuring he'd have a guaranteed income stream of $3,750 coming to him, Leonard asked: "What would you pay for it?" The metallurgist's husband replied "$32 per ton." Leonard understandably lost it. "WHAT?" Leonard exclaimed. The metallurgist's husband took "WHAT?" as "You've gotta be shitting." instead of "Wonderful," and raised his offer to $36 per ton. [pages 36-37]
"'What are you guys paying for Honey? How about Barley?' ...It's the secret language of the global scrap recycler, a recycler's Esperanto if you will... How do a buyer and seller agree on a deal for a ton of old cotton rags, if every ton of cotton rags is different? ...the National Association of Waste Management Dealers created binding specifications that said precisely what those rags should look like. ...There was, however, one problem: [in 1914], the fastest means of consummating business was the Teletype, and the Teletype companies charged by the character. So to simplify communication and cut down on expensive Teletype bills, scrap dealers agreed on a set of four to six-letter words to represent the various grades of scrap recyclables that are traded." [page 49]
- Honey = brass that is free of manganese-bronze
- Barley = bare, uncoated, unalloyed copper wire
- Talk = aluminum copper radiators
- Lake = brass arms and rifle shells, clean fired
- Ocean = automobile radiator
- Taboo = mixed low copper aluminum clippings and solids
"Near the top, we reach a crumbling gray and red outcropping. It contains copper ore [...] as well as something called sulfides. When rain or snow comes into contact with sulfide ore [...], it produces caustic sulfuric acid. 'That's why the rock is so crumbly.' ...Each ton of copper will require the processing of as much as 100 tons of ore. Multiply 100 tons of sulfur-bearing ore by the 6.2 million tons of copper beneath my feet, and the scale of the problem becomes epic. What will happen to the 99 tons of sulfite rock once the copper has been extracted from it? Some of it will go back into the ground, but an unknown percentage of those billions of tons will need to remain on the surface, exposed to rain and snow." [page 69]
"If trade is balanced — that is, if the United States and China manufacture the same volume of goods for each other — then containers going to the United States will return to China with goods. But if the United States and the European Union aren't manufacturing anything that people in China will want to buy, then shipping companies need to figure out the cheapest way to move their containers back to China ASAP so they can be restocked with more goods to ship back to the States. Shipping empty containers is one option, but not very profitable. [This] leaves, really, only one high-volume product to fill all of those empty containers going back to China: scrap." [page 86]
The Grimy Boomtown Heat
"The piles of motors that used to litter the American countryside in the 1980s and 1990s have already been exported. Now, the scrap motor market is limited to what's being thrown away in real time in the United States, Japan, Europe, and — increasingly — China. The motors that used to drive U.S. industry are being exported to China, refurbished, and used to drive Chinese industry... for China's growing middle class." [page 111]
Big Waste Country
Here's a puzzle:
"'I was surprised to see so many Christmas lights [at the scrapyard],' I tell him. 'Big waste country, the U.S.,' he answers. 'They make these things but have no way to recycle them. Not enough copper in Christmas lights for the big companies... to chop them up and be worth the money. So we [Chinese] buy it.'" [page 129]
"[Homer is a scrap buyer. Johnson is a scrap seller.] It was during those early years that Homer learned, firsthand, the difference in copper content between, say, a three-quarter-inch cable covered in green insulation and one covered in black insulation and lined with steel. It's why, when Johnson sends photos from American scrapyards in the middle of the night, Homer need only glance at them once before typing out a price and going back to sleep. It's the kind of expertise earned, as much as learned, by stripping cable on your own." [page 134]
"...what I find most striking about Wen'an [a plastic recycling capital] is this: there's nothing green. It's a dead zone. In 1975, Wen'an was bucolic — an agricultural region renowned for its streams, peach trees, and simple rollicking landscape. As recently as 1985, Wen'an's waste plastics industry was devoted almost entirely to recycling plastics generated in China. But demand for plastics was growing rapidly in China, and outside of it, and by 2000, China's plastics traders were looking for additional sources of scrap plastics. They found those sources abroad. [pages 145-146]
The Reincarnation Department
"In 1970, [it was estimated that] since 1955, Americans had abandoned between 9 and 40 million automobiles in fields, open bodies of water, and city streets... Meanwhile, [although] American steel mills began to upgrade their technologies, by the 1950s, many were no longer interested in melting down old automobile bodies procured from scrapyards. The problem was copper: even a small amount — 1% or so — when melted in a steel furnace will weaken the properties of steel... In 2009, China surpassed the United States to become the world's largest automobile market, with 18 million vehicles sold." [pages 162-163,178]
The Golden Ingot
"'In China, most people don't even have safe food to eat, clean water to drink, and clean air to breathe,' he told me. 'We are perhaps 10 or 20 years from solving those problems. But the foreign environmental groups want us to worry about old computers and greenhouse gases. How can you worry about greenhouse gases and old computers if your kids don't have safe milk to drink?'" [page 192]
"...I sat down with Dr. Vaman Acharya, chairman of the Pollution Control Board in the state of Karnataka (home to Bangalore, India), to discuss e-waste... 'I have bigger issues!' he exclaimed. It was a clarifying lesson in what matters to the developing world." [page 194]
The Coin Tower
"By the ISRI [(Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries)] specifications, 'Twitch' is shredded aluminum that's been separated at a flotation plant of the sort operated by [the] Huron Valley [Steel Corporation's complex in Belleville, Michigan]. It is supposed to be 95% aluminum (and aluminum alloys); however, Huron Valley's Twitch actually approaches an incredible 99% aluminum. That might not sound like a big difference — 95% to 99% — but in the metal business, it's huge. It allows Huron Valley's aluminum to be used in a much wider range of applications, and — significantly — it allows Huron Valley to charge a premium for it, too." [pages 223-224]
Hot Metal Flows
"In the 6 weeks after the September 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers, and the onset of the global financial crisis, the price of aluminum had fallen by more than half... If manufacturers aren't manufacturing, the scrap dealers are among the first to feel it. [Prices fluctuate all the time, but] what was different about 2008 was how fast it had happened, and how far prices fell — in the case of some grades of steel, they dropped 80% in a matter of weeks... The scruffy scrap peddlers [in China] probably had never heard of Lehman, but they knew damn well that the street price of [discarded] Coke cans in Beijing was half of what it had been weeks before... In the fall of 2008..., hundreds of Chinese scrap buyers refused to pay the outstanding balance for containers of scrap metal that had already sailed from ports in Europe and the United States. They broke their contracts. By early November, Chinese ports were jammed up with thousands of devalued containers of American scrap metal that nobody wanted to claim as their own, much less pay for." [pages 233-235]
"Scrap exporters don't always ship scrap orderly as quickly as they promise — especially if the markets are moving up, and they can sell it again for more. But when it is falling, they cannot wait to send the metal to China!... Also, when the market is up, they like to load less weight than 40,000 pounds (allowed in a shipping container)... [This notwithstanding, an importer's biggest problem is] stealing scrap out of his containers as they move from Hong Kong to [the importer]. Someone is skimming scrap off the tops of loads while containers are under the control of Chinese customs... No one knows precisely who is doing it..., but the leading candidate being this one: at customs. mixed loads of scrap are unloaded, assessed, and weighed. They used to just look and inspect. Now they weigh and steel. [Importers have resorted to buying pure loads (only one type of metal) at a higher price because only mixed loads (multiple metals) need to be inspected.]" [page 245-246,248]
Ashes to Ashes, Junk to Junk
"Cardboard and paper cannot be recycled indefinitely. Depending on the type of paper, the individual fibers can only survive intact for perhaps six or seven trips through the energy-intensive process required to turn them into new boxes or new sheets of paper. Likewise, many plastics can only survive one turn through the plastic recycling process before having to be 'down-cycled' into unrecyclable products like plastic lumber for backyard decks." [page 254]
This was a very enjoyable book. Written in the first person, it shares facts through the personal adventures of Adam Minter, who grew up in his family's scrap business. Part travelogue, part spy novel, and part almanac, each chapter reveals details about recycling that most people are unaware of. The book wraps up with sage advice that seems so common sense as to make one wonder why it isn't commonplace already:
- On a global scale, consumption is inevitably on the rise; however, you can do your part to reduce your own consumption to help slow the trend.
- Reducing your consumption in the first place obviates the need for recycling.
- You may believe recycling is good for the environment instead of better. Recycling is not without its own environmental impacts. So don't mistakenly maintain or increase your consumption because you believe it will be recycled after you are finished with it.
- Recycling is not a "get out of jail free" card [page 252] regarding your consumption.
- It is certainly easier to reuse something instead of recycling it.
- Reuse avoids having to destroy something (with its environmental impacts and energy needs) only to recreate it as something else (or exactly what it was before).
- With your purchasing power, you can demand that manufacturers make products that can be repaired, reused, or at least, recycled.
- When you place your recyclables in the appropriate curbside container, you haven't really recycled anything. You may feel good about it but have only outsourced the problem. Someone somewhere has to spend money, time, and energy to convert your discardables into something usable.
- You can stop lamenting that America sends many of its recyclables to China. This keeps them out of landfills in the United States.
- You can dispel the "mentality that America is too good for certain industries" [page 263] by not looking down on those who work in scrapyards. They provide a valuable service for the community and the planet.
- You can support import/export laws that allow countries that do not manufacture (or have limited manufacturing capability) to send their recyclables to countries that do.
"If China remains the world's biggest manufacturer, why shouldn't it be the biggest harvester of raw materials from the castoffs of other countries? Why shouldn't it be the capital of Junkyard planet." [page 265]
The Autodesk vision is to help everyone imagine, design, and make a better world. Our aim is to help our customers make more things, better things, with less. Less in terms of time and resources, but also less in negative impact to the environment. This book was an eye-opener as to the urgency of that need. Thanks for the loan of the book, John.
Junk is alive in the lab.